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Civil Asset Forfeiture: Inverting Justice

August 4, 2015

Sound farfetched?  Every state in the county, as well as the federal government, have enacted civil asset forfeiture laws that allow the government to do precisely that.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal fiction.  Normally when the government alleges criminal wrongdoing the government bears the high burden of proving the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.  Forfeiture laws, however, allow the government to initiate a civil case against an inanimate piece of property where the government merely asserts that the property is somehow related to criminal activity, and then the property owner bears the burden of proving his or her innocence.  In other words, civil asset forfeiture turns the criminal justice system, and the burden of proof that underpins it, on its head.  

Worse yet, almost all forfeiture laws mandate that the proceeds of forfeited property go directly to the agency involved in the process.  For example, if Maricopa County Sheriff Deputies seize your house, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office keeps it.  The agency then uses that property as the agency chooses with very little oversight.  This, of course, provides an improper financial incentive for law enforcement to initiate civil seizures even on the flimsiest grounds.

Rhonda Cox, a sales associate for a local shading company and grandmother of four, is a recent victim of these laws.  In 2013, Rhonda purchased a used pickup truck for $6,000.  Like most parents, Rhonda occasionally loaned her vehicle to her children.  On one occasion, Rhonda’s son drove her truck to a nearby store where he was approached by deputies of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department and informed that they suspected him of stealing a cover on the bed of the truck.  Deputies then seized the truck and initiated forfeiture proceedings against it.  

Once she learned of the incident, Rhonda informed the Sheriff’s Office that the truck was hers and she had nothing to do with the alleged crime.  Rhonda pleaded to have her truck returned.  Law enforcement authorities were unsympathetic.  Despite knowing that Rhonda owned the truck, and despite knowing she had nothing to do with the alleged theft, the agency refused to return her property.  The County Attorney assigned to the case then threatened Rhonda with having to pay the government’s attorneys’ fees if she contested the forfeiture. 

Unable to afford a lawyer to fight the seizure, and certainly unable to pay high attorneys’ fees if she lost a case where she bore the burden of proof, she gave up and the truck was forfeited.

The proceeds of the forfeiture were awarded to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department – the same agency that initiated the seizure. 

Unfortunately, Rhonda’s case is not unusual.  Incentivized by laws that allow them to keep the proceeds of forfeiture, all across the country law enforcement agencies are taking cars, homes, cash, and other items of private property of innocent owners without ever bringing or proving criminal charges.  Deterred by a system that is stacked against them, citizens, particularly low income citizens, can rarely protect themselves or their property.

Rhonda has challenged the constitutionality of Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws in federal court.  

State lawmakers should also take notice and reform a system that is both ripe for abuse and an affront to due process protections.  The government exists to protect citizens like Rhonda and their property against arbitrary force, not to arbitrarily use force to threaten citizens, seize their private property, and then reap the rewards of the seizure.



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